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Music and Morality


Seminar ListAbstract • PreparationMain Text


Introduction

Has music a moral aspect? Can it be used for 'good' or 'evil'? When we talk about music being 'good' or 'bad' we usually mean whether we think it's effective or not, whether we respond to it or not. Some people, though, think that music they don't like is actually bad. Many parents think that certain types of music are bad because they 'corrupt' their children, either through the nature of the music itself, words that are used with the music, activities that might happen while the music is playing, or the type of people who commonly participate in the music. Are they right or wrong to be concerned about this? Many people think that 'classical' music is much 'better', which is why they're so often shocked by some contemporary works. Harrison Birtwistle's opera 'Punch and Judy' (text by Stephen Montague) uses the seaside/fairground puppet show to convey the violence within human relationships. Punch doesn't just 'punch' Judy, he murders her, and the baby, and a number of other characters. He does this apparently without remorse, even with joy and exhilaration. A French production of Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King shocked its audience by situating the main character in a bath of excrement. How does this compare to the 'nice' music of the classical period, where grace, skill and decorum are at a premium?

These cases may be compared to other media - is the motivation for something important in discussing its morality? If someone produces an extremely violent or sexual piece, does it matter whether, really, there's some sort of moral message behind it? Recent pieces criticised include Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the book American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis...

There is a tendency for some people to consider that art in general has a moral 'duty' - in other words that, ultimately, and maybe in obscure, ironic or satirical ways, it should emphasise the 'good'. Is this true, or is the responsibility of art to represent reality - whether this is good or bad? If an artist feels that ultimately, human nature is at best amoral and at worst evil, should they not express this.

Music and Religion

A similar sort of opinion, although seen from a different point of view, has sometimes been put forward by various religions, a number of which view music as an immoral thing, often along with other 'iconic' items. They see music as, potentially, being at best a distraction from God and at worst a lure to evil. Of course, religions have also been some of the greatest sponsors of religious music, too. The point is an interesting one, though. In terms of a religious ceremony, is the important thing for the composer to create what he or she thinks of as 'beautiful', or to create something that enables the congregation to experience more, or more easily, the 'glory of God'.

Music and Education

Another related idea is the idea that art is, or should be, a form of 'education'. A few years ago, a Museum of Rock Music was opened in Sheffield, UK. Almost immediately, its organisers were heavily criticised for 'censoring' the history of the music they were curating. There is clearly a difficulty, in this case, of presenting the history of a music which has often been so significantly (and audibly!) influenced by sex, drugs and alcohol. How many parents or teachers would be happy to take children (the main target for the museum) around exhibits 'celebrating' the creative aspects of drug taking? And yet isn't drug taking a very fundamental part of rock music, at least of the sixties and seventies (come on, and today...).

I have had personal experience of similar ideas - their is a peculiar relationship between education and the arts, not least because their funding comes from different sources (although ultimately, it is usually public funding)...


Preparation

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Main Text

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